Tikchik Narrows Lodge, Day One: The Noosh

Written by: Phil Monahan

The view from our front porch is incredible.
Photo by Phil Monahan

When you first set eyes on Tikchik Narrows from the air, as the floatplane prepares to land, you’re struck by the incredible scale of the landscape that surrounds it. Perched on a peninsula between Tikchik and Nuyakuk Lakes in western Bristol Bay, the lodge offers spectacular views of mountains in almost every direction. When we were shown to our lakefront cabin, My young photographer friend Charlie Hildick-Smith and I spent a couple minutes just taking in the incredible vista.

Every direction offers an opportunity for something remarkable.
Photo by Phil Monahan

We had come to Tikchik Narrows Lodge at the invitation of Andy Angstman, who took over ownership last year. Building on the legacy of Bud Hodsen, who had run TNL for almost four decades, Andy has an expansive vision of how the lodge’s fishing program can continue to grow, develop, and improve in the coming years. I hadn’t been in The Last Frontier since 1998, so I was excited to spend time out in the bush casting for wild Alaska fish again.

Our intrepid guide, Cole, takes us downstream to explore a tributary of the Nushagak.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Our first day of fishing involved a gorgeous 30-minute flight in one of the lodge’s three DeHavilland Beaver float planes. We landed on the Upper Nushagak River, where our guide, Cole Nanney, was waiting for us. He and two fellow guides live out on the river in a small base, so their knowledge of the water is extensive and up-to-date. Cole explained that he wanted to explore a tributary of “the Nush” (pronounced noosh) to see if the rainbow trout had migrated that far upriver. Riding in jet-boats is always thrilling, and Cole navigated the many riffles, obstacles, and shallows with ease.

This grayling fell for a Prince Nymph dangling below a Chubby Chernobyl.
Photo by Charles Hildick-Smith

We beached on a gravel bar, and Cole rigged my 10-foot, 6-weight Helios with a black-and-white Dolly Lama streamer on a sinking tip. He explained that the rainbows liked to hold close to the extensive woody debris in the water, so the closer I could get my fly to the wood, the better. We worked the water hard for a few hundred yards without a strike—and only one lost fly—before we came to a long, deep bend that looked incredible fishy. About halfway through, a nice grayling appeared behind my fly mid-swing, followed for a few feet, and then ate. After a brief fight, we had our fist fish of the day.

Diving terns let us know when another school of salmon slots was coming downriver.
Photo by Charles Hildick-Smith

While I was fighting that grayling, another rose slightly downstream. Never one to turn down a dry-fly opportunity, I switched to a dry-dropper setup and caught another, bigger grayling on a Prince Nymph hung below a Chubby Chernobyl. Soon there were more risers, and we took two more from the pool, one of the dry and the other on the nymph. These were beefy, beautiful grayling that fought hard and were hard to hold long enough for a photo.

Success! This tern picked a salmon smolt out of the river.
Photo by Charles Hildick-Smith

The other highlight of the day came when Cole brought us to the confluence of two river braids, where a flock of terns was diving on schools of salmon smolts heading downriver to the sea. It was something you expect to see while saltwater fishing, not chasing trout and grayling on a river hundreds of miles upstream from the sea. Wherever the birds were diving, you could also see trout and grayling heads breaking the surface, as they ate the same schools of baitfish from below.

Our first rainbow of the trip wasn’t a trophy, but it was a fat smolt-eater.
Photo by Charles Hildick-Smith

The smolts came in pulses, and the birds would let us know when a new school was coming through. They’d start diving upstream and come increasing closer, which is when we’d start casting. It was an absolute blast, and we caught several more grayling and our first rainbow trout before we had to run upstream to meet our flight home.

Tomorrow, we’re off in search of big arctic char. Stay tuned . . . .

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